Drawing exit plans
The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic may have perpetuated an air of despondency across the country but as states and the Centre brave the public health emergency, a silver lining exists. The Union of India may be living in unprecedented times but it can realise the complete strength of its cooperative federalism as it fights the invisible foe. In less than a fortnight, three conferences between chief ministers of different states and the prime minister signify the importance of a concerted effort in battling the coronavirus. While directives from the Centre are obligatory for states to implement, the joint deliberative effort undertaken by the Central government is laudable. With space for everyone to bring ideas to the table, Saturday's videoconference between the chief executives of states and the Centre threw light on an inevitable outcome: extension of the national lockdown. With few states extending the lockdown in their territorial capacity and suggesting the same to PM in their meeting, the question that now hovers is not of extending the lockdown but assessing the economic aspect of the same. While a wide consensus existed over the extension to at least the end of the month, few CMs such as Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh opined that unaffected districts could be allowed to resume activity; the latter also suggested colour-coding of districts for better identification of hotspots that will serve as containment zones under the Health Ministry guidelines issued specifically for COVID-19. Allowing unaffected districts to resume activity arises from the sensitivity towards an arrested economy with collateral damage being the heavy financial losses incurred by both, the state as well as the majority of people. Halted livelihoods cannot be indefinitely reimbursed through DBTs or free ration and the Central leadership acknowledges that. Hence, the need of the hour is to evolve the strategy and allow for a resumption of economic activity albeit laced with restrictions such as sealed borders and no inter-state travel. While it is true that unaffected districts can resume activity, taking steps towards normalcy, even a single case could prove disastrous. Therefore, states must not rely on the doctrine of zero cases reported and rather opt to ascertain the unaffectedness of these districts before permitting them to resume their businesses. To this extent, every state's capability to trace, test and treat the infected population would be a better filter in the larger scheme of things. Again, the instrumental factor here is data. Unless there is concrete data on affected districts, such a measure cannot be taken. Hence, ramping up testing in the coming days is of the essence. From 1,200 tests per day in 75 laboratories (a total of 15,000 tests) till March 20, India's testing regime has climbed to 15,000 tests per day in 220 laboratories (a total of 1.6 lakh tests) till April 10. But we are still far from the testing frequency adopted by nations that poured in efforts to flatten their transmission curve.
Nevertheless, the identification of 142 hotspots across India by April 10 — 60 as 'Large Outbreaks Containment' zones (with more than 15 cases) and 82 as 'Cluster Containment' zones (with less than 15 cases) — serves as pivotal in making further decisions. While strict lockdown would be best for these identified hotspots, the adjoining districts or districts in near proximity to these hotspots can resume activity with extensive social distancing measures in place in all aspects such as working, transportation, etc., with public gathering prohibited. The other unaffected districts not near to these hotspots can have an additional grade of relaxation when it comes to restrictions after a few days of strict vigilance for cases coupled with randomised testing to ensure no hidden cases exist. These unaffected districts can then resume businesses provided the local health infrastructure and administrative arm are equipped to manage any crisis that may befall. Intra-district travel may still be feasible but inter-district and inter-state travel must be shut till the situation comprehensively improves. The next fortnight shall show how the imminent Summer will unfold.